Monthly Archives: July 2011

Barrington Gates’s review of The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement of June 13, 1942

“This is another book written by a young man who interrupted his youth to become a Spitfire pilot. It will not disappoint those whose appetite for realistic description of the R. A. F. fighters in training and action is still unsated; and it will refresh and sustain many whose interest is rather in the men who are making this tradition than in the details of the battles they fight. This is a book of war aims in which the act of aiming a Spitfire at the enemy is only incidental; if anyone is still unconvinced that this war is a war of ideas over the secret places of the human spirit he will find a proof here. Mr Hillary’s enemy is hardly at all the one he met in the air. The last enemy of his title is drawn from I Cor. xv, 26, but even that is not a very precise definition. It is not death but rather the evil of negation, of life ingrown in self, which engages Mr Hillary as he hunts himself through the fortunes of this striking discourse…”

Read the full article. 

BBC recording of Richard Hillary

Richard HillaryA pilot vividly recounts his experience of being shot down over the North Sea.

‘Hillary had a fine talent for writing and an interest in self-analysis. In this unusually reflective account he recalls the dogfight that was his undoing and gives a dispassionate account of his injuries and thoughts about death as he floated in the North Sea for three hours until he was rescued from the water.’

In listening to this calm, well-spoken account (taken from the first chapter of The Last Enemy), it is his age that particularly strikes me. The mature timbre of the voice belies the injured, lonely 22 year old boy sitting behind the microphone.

Listen to the interview, recorded in 1941.  

The last enemy

In antiquity, autobiographical works were typically entitled ‘apologia’, purporting to be self-justification rather than self-documentation

Richard Hillary was born in Sydney, Australia in 1919. He was sent, at the earliest permissible age, to boarding school in England. He was independent and assertive; many found him to be arrogant and provocative. But, his good looks, athleticism and willy self reliance ensured his success and he secured a place at Oxford. He left his course in his second year to take up a short commission with the RAF as a fighter pilot.

The Last Enemy is his account of learning to fly, his wartime experiences and the treatment of his horrific burns. Published in 1942, it has been hailed as one of the classic texts of World War Two.

Sebastian Faulks writes in the introduction:

“[Hillary’s] descriptions of flying and of life on the station are lucid, swift and exciting; they are of a different calibre from the hundreds of R.A.F. memoirs that were published after the war: they aspire to, and attain, the status of literature. One of the most memorable aspects of the book is the sonorous but unsentimental way in which he records death, one by one of his friends…Richard Hillary captured in his cool prose the attitudes of the men who fought in those crucial weeks; the exact match between the charm of his style and the global importance of the battle is what enabled The Last Enemy to touch a public nerve.” (xi)

In searching for a definition of truth and authenticity, his book puts a marker in the ground. It is a blunt, articulate first-hand account. It was written as soon as he was physically able to put pen to paper (he found writing very difficult with his clawed, burned hands). Time was not allowed to erode the immediacy and accuracy of his memories.

Hillary relates his self-absorbed and disconnected attitude towards the war throughout the book, but then two encounters lead to a damascene revalation: one is a meeting with an old friend- a former pacifist who mourns the fact that he turned his back on the need to combat the great evil sweeping the world; the other is an act of heroism as he pulls a mortally injured woman from a blitzed house in London. He credits the woman with her ‘cow eyes’ and gentle sympathy (she looks at his burned face and comments “I see they got you too”) with his conversion to the enormity of the cause. Hillary writes:

“That that woman should die was an enormity so great that it was terrifying in its implications, in lifting the veil on possibilities of thought so far beyond the grasp of the human mind. It was not just the German bombs, or the German Air Force, or even the German mentality, but a feeling of the very essence of anti life that no words could convey. This is what I had been cursing- in part, for I had recognized in that moment what it was that Peter and the others had instantly recognized as evil and to be destroyed utterly. I saw now that it was not crime; it was Evil itself-something of which until then I had not even sensed the existence. And it was in the end, at bottom, myself against which I had raged, myself I had cursed. With awful clarity I saw myself as I was. Great God, that I could have been so arrogant!” (174)

But, both the meeting with his friend and the rescue of the woman, are fiction (Hillary once described the work as a ‘novel’). Hillary was in New York when he wrote the book, not the bombed streets of London. How does this affect the ‘truthfulness’ of the memory? What must literally happen, and what falls under the ancients’ tradition of writing for self justification? Faulks argues that The Last Enemy acquired the aura of a book that ‘says something vital, whose importance goes beyond what it literally describes.’

Hillary draws a conclusion in his final chapter that he must write a story that records the lost lives of his friends to earn his “right to the fellowship with the dead.”

He underwent further operations by the great plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. After a slow and painful recovery, he begged to be allowed to return to flying. He was transfered to a bomber training unit in the bleak wilds of Scotland, and despite the great unease from both his commanding officers and his friends and family, he took to the skies again.

He was killed at the age of 23, when his plane crashed in a night training exercise.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
-1 Corinthians 15:26

We have seen all

Bombed city

Ma la notte resurge, e orami e da partir, che tutto avem veduto.

But night is rising again and now it is time to go, for we have seen all.

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV

Using themselves up

“Beyond those who died flying for Bomber Command, many more outstanding men somehow used themselves up in the Second World War, leaving pathetically little energy and imagination to support them through the balance of their lives. Surviving aircrew often felt deeply betrayed by criticism of the strategic air offensive, It is disgraceful that they were never awarded a campaign Medal after surviving the extraordinary battle that they fought for so long against such odds, and in which so many of them died. One night after I visited a much-decorated pilot in the North of England in the course of writing this book, he drove me to the station. Suddenly turning to me in the car, he asked: ‘Has anybody else mentioned having nightmares about it?’ He said that in the past ten years he had been troubled by increasingly vivid and terrible dreasm about his experiences over Germany.

A teacher by profession, he had thought nothing of the war for years afterwards. The a younger generation of his colleagues began to ask with repetitive, inquisitive distaste: ‘How could you have done it? How could you have flown over Germany night after night to bomb women and children?’ He began to brood more and more deeply about the past. He changed his job and started to teach mentally-handicapped children, which he saw as a kind of restitution.  Yet still, more than thirty years after, his memories of the war haunt him.

It is wrong that it should be so. He was a brave man who achieved an outstanding record in the RAF. The aircrew of Bomber Command went out to do what they had been told had to be done for the survival of Britain and for Allied victory. Historic judgements on the bomber offensive can do nothing to mar the honour of such an epitaph.”

-Max Hastings, 458-459.

How should we remember Bomber Command?

Sixty five years after VE Day, a monument to the bomber crews who helped defeat Nazi Germany raises difficult questions

The cost of the bomber offensive

“We want- that is, the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next of kin- a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.”

-Wing-Commander Ernest Millington MP, House of Commons, 1946

Having taken a long look at Bomber Command over the last few weeks, I think the time has come to start shifting our focus. There are two pieces of work to be done before I start adding the specific details from the log book: further consideration of memoirs and memory (all the work we have looked at thus far has been written by historians; I’d like to look at some first-hand accounts- one written during the war and one written long after it).  I also need to build a better understanding of the situation in North Africa, working from the ground up.

But, before we depart from the topic of Bomber Command, I’d like to collect and post a few final thoughts on the balance sheet and why it remains such a difficult topic even today.

Here is Hasting’s summation:

“After the War, beneath a thin layer of perfunctory good will, it was soon apparent that…in the safety of peace the bombers’ part in the war was one that many politicians and civilians would prefer to forget. The laurels and romantic adulation were reserved for Fighter Command, the defenders. The men of the Army Occupation were first awed, then increasingly dismayed, by the devastation of Germany (451).”

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes…by fighting a long-holding action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If the airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved (458).”